Kailer Yamamoto has been an intriguing player to follow over the last three seasons. He showed supreme confidence before the 2017 NHL Draft when he told the Edmonton Oilers’ previous management regime that they would regret passing on him.
And almost three years to the day after Yamamoto first put on an Oilers jersey at the United Center in Chicago, it looks like he was right. After struggling to find his footing during his first two NHL stints, he was recalled by the Oilers in late December and never looked back.
While Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl made most of the headlines this season, and rightfully so, Yamamoto was an integral part of the Oilers’ success in 2019-20.
Oilers Saw Massive Potential in Yamamoto
When the Oilers chose Yamamoto with their first-round pick (22nd overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft, I believed it was a steal for the organization. In 2016-17, he finished seventh in the Western Hockey League (WHL) in goals (42), seventh in assists (57) and sixth in points (99) in 65 games, and was named to the Western Conference Second All-Star Team.
His 1.52 points-per-game average was the highest of any draft-eligible player from the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in 2016-17, just barely ahead of first-overall pick Nico Hischier (1.51). It seemed obvious that his lack of size is why Yamamoto was ranked 17th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
But the Oilers’ scouts didn’t care how tall he was or how much he weighed, because they knew he could play.
“Our scouting staff and the general manager Peter Chiarelli started watching him all year,” Wayne Gretzky told SWX Right Now-Sports reporter Lindsay Joy on July 29, 2017. “In January, Yamamoto was the guy that the Oilers eyed and ticketed that they wanted on our team. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, our game is obviously built around finesse and speed. And Yamamoto fits into the mold.
“He’s got tremendous hockey sense, he’s fast, and he’s very tough. He plays bigger than a guy who is 5-foot-7, so I think he got drafted by the right team and we’re excited to have him. I think he’s going to fit in very nicely.”
Yamamoto joined a growing list of teenagers that the Oilers had rushed to the NHL before they were ready. After scoring five goals in six exhibition games in 2017, he surprisingly earned a roster spot, and even played top-line minutes with McDavid.
Thankfully, the then-GM Chiarelli sent Yamamoto back to the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL without burning the first year of his entry-level contract. The following season, Yamamoto played 17 games with the Oilers, where he displayed excellent speed and checking ability. But he wasn’t contributing offensively and clearly needed more time in the American Hockey League (AHL) to work on his game.
Missing Piece of the Puzzle
The Edmonton Oilers got off to an strong 16-7-3 start this season, but hit a rough patch in December where they won just four of their next 15 games. By this point in the season, head coach Dave Tippett was eager to split up McDavid and Draisaitl to give the Oilers a more balanced offensive attack. (from ‘Oilers splitting McDavid and Draisaitl might actually work this time,’ National Post, 01/09/2020)
Shortly thereafter, Yamamoto was recalled by the Oilers as a potential wing option to play with one of their two dynamic centres. He quickly found a home on a line with Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and together they formed arguably the best unit in the NHL after the Christmas break.
“I felt a lot better this year,” Yamamoto told Gene Principe during a one-on-one interview on Sportsnet’s YouTube channel. “In my first two years [with the Oilers], I didn’t play how I wanted to play. But this year was a lot of fun. I think it helped me out a lot getting sent down to Bakersfield at the beginning of the year to get my confidence back and my legs back after having surgery the year before.
“Coming up to Edmonton this year was a lot more fun and I had a lot more confidence with my game. I knew I belonged there, and playing on Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins’ line made it that much easier. Hopefully we can get back to it [this summer] and win a Stanley Cup.”
Between Dec. 31 and March 12, the trio combined for 47 goals and 116 points in a span of 30 games (3.87 points per game). Yamamoto put up 11 goals and 26 points in 27 games in 2019-20, which prorates to 33 goals and 79 points in a full 82-game season. Even more impressive, 24 of his 26 points this season were scored at even strength.
The 21-year-old excels at finding open ice in the offensive zone to release a quick shot on goal, which makes him an ideal player to put with a couple excellent passers like Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. And while he’s known more for his offensive production, Yamamoto plays a sound defensive game and earned the trust of Dave Tippett to help protect one-goal leads late in the third period.
If anyone was worried about him being the lightest player in the NHL at 153 pounds, they have no reason to be concerned. Yamamoto is fearless when it comes to puck battles against bigger players. Oilers fans will not soon forget Yamamoto competing for space in front of the net with Boston Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara, who stands 6-foot-9, during a game this season.
Although he’s only played in 53 career NHL games, Yamamoto looks like he could be the final piece of a dangerous second-line in Edmonton going forward. If Tippett keeps the trio together and Yamamoto becomes a permanent fixture on the Oilers’ top power-play unit, I wouldn’t bet against him scoring 70 or more points in 2020-21.
But all he’s focused on right now is bringing the Cup back to Edmonton.